Writing for Seltani: Aspel Post-mortem Part 2

This is Part 2 of a post-mortem series about my multiplayer Seltani game Aspel. Part 1 talked about things I omitted entirely from the design, and some things that I put in that didn’t work quite right. Part 2 talks about things that did work, and things that started out not working but that I think I improved over the iterations between tours.

These discussions are sort of implicitly a bit spoilery. You can decide how much that bothers you.

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Spring Thing 2015: Doggerland (Alan DeNiro)

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Alan DeNiro’s Doggerland belongs to the interactive poetry school of Twine: highly personal, only loosely narrative, making play with hover effects as well as links in order to evoke some connections that aren’t explicitly stated. It concerns, among other things: winter and isolation, global warming, childhood, problems with America’s health care safety net, parenthood, glaciation, the passage of time, and a personal decision which (since the work is described as autobiographical) I assume is true to DeNiro’s actual experience.

There is, as far as I could find, one branch point where you can choose which of two vignettes to read, and since links are marked with icons rather than with text, it’s hard to call this a choice: it’s more of a lottery. The work is otherwise linear-exploratory, allowing the player to decide only how much depth to experience at each point before moving on.

I might almost have preferred not to have that branch. I replayed the story to see what I had missed the first time around, but the structure is otherwise so tight and the emotional impact so much tied up in the process of revelation that playing for completeness the second time felt like a diminishing of the experience. Perhaps. But then, the theme of opportunity cost is also appropriate for the story. And then, also, I understood the shape of the piece better the second time around, so perhaps it was worthwhile to encourage this. I don’t know.

I do know that it has a quality I associate with good poetry, which is that the more I think about it, the more it pulls together, the more the different screens and different text seem thematically interrelated.

The rest of what I think about this is not about craft but about content, so I’m going to put a spoiler jump in now.

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Spring Thing 2015: Ruiness (Porpentine); Missing Since ’77 (Andrew Watt)

Ruiness is a Porpentine game, and as such is typically difficult to summarize. It takes place in an evocative post-apocalyptic wasteland in which people have roles like “scavenger” and “dustrunner”, as well as apparently belonging to different species and riding various creatures.

Most of the gameplay is exploratory and concerns uncovering new places to go, or else new kinds of character to be — in this regard it reminded me of Contrition. Both Ruiness and Contrition take some concerted work to explore fully; they don’t feel like puzzle games, precisely, but they are more demanding to navigate than the average Twine. (In fact, I’m reminded a bit of Toby’s Nose, here.)

I’m not sure I could summarize what happens here at a plot level, and sometimes the descriptions become more prose-texture than denotative. One of the curious things about Porpentine’s work is her ability to make worlds and stories that are navigable even when they take place in an utterly alien environment. This effect is fully in force in Ruiness.

Through both mechanics (the replacement of one protagonist with another and another) and content (the endgame), the story suggests that the experience of individuals is relatively unimportant, that their culture and history is being shaped by supervising forces far beyond their comprehension. I found this simultaneously bleak and comforting: bleak because it was hard to enter into any one character’s life in any depth, comforting because the supervisory force seemed to at least desire positive outcomes such as a reduction in war.

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Missing Since ’77 was entered in the Back Garden because it’s a demo of an unfinished game. The results were certainly polished enough to have made this a reasonable contender in Introcomp, and I’m glad to see the Back Garden option used for a variety of purposes.

The game identifies itself as fantasy, but most of what we see in the setup is set in the real world. This appears to be a portal story in which a character has gone missing in an alternate fantasy universe, but it’s told from the points of view of those looking for him, namely his wife and the young detective she’s hired. The game starts out in the detective’s view, then switches to the wife’s and retells the same events (some of which depend on what the player did the first time around) with an alternate perspective. Like KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND, it uses a change of typography to indicate when we are seeing through new eyes.

This is an ambitious approach, uncommon if not absolutely unknown in other IF: Stephen Granade’s Common Ground did multiple-perspective retelling in the form of parser IF, and a handful of time travel puzzle games record what the player has done and repeats these back to allow the player to collaborate with other selves — Fifteen Minutes being a notable recent example.

To work, this kind of design requires rigorous state tracking (though possibly this is less fiddly in Twine because there’s less state to worry about) as well as good enough writing to make a second pass through the same scene interesting to the player. Missing Since ’77 did pull this off, at least for me.

I enjoyed this and would be curious to see more.

Spring Thing 2015: Toby’s Nose (Chandler Groover)

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The premise of Toby’s Nose is that you are Toby, a dog belonging to Sherlock Holmes, and your task is to sniff out a murderer from a roomful of suspects. There are quite a few possible suspects to choose from, so while you could solve this by a process of elimination, it is more satisfying to try to work out the clues for yourself.

There are no intermediate puzzles per se: the entirety of gameplay consists of examining and smelling things until you’re satisfied that you’ve pieced together a backstory that makes sense of the whole. Playing the game well is about being very thorough; and though “explore a conceptual space via parser” is a relatively recent design trend, it reminds me of the exploratory aspects of old-school IF. It used to be — back ca. Curses or so — that authors considered it totally fair to hide things under beds and behind paintings without providing the player with any clue that they should look there. Thorough and relentless examining was just one of the things that a IF player was supposed to do.

Chandler Groover cites Castle of the Red Prince and Lime Ergot as inspirations, and indeed the influence of both is very clear. As Toby, you can not only smell things that are in the room, but you can dig deeper into the remembered and trace scents from other places; so, without moving, you can smell (and thus get descriptions of) other rooms of the house and indeed parts of the countryside and of London that turn out to be relevant to the mystery. The traditional locational model of interactive fiction melts away and is replaced by conceptual movement — just as, in Lime Ergot, it’s possible to zoom in on a particular remembered image, or in Castle of the Red Prince it’s possible to interact with far-off things and bring them instantly into scope.

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Spring Thing 2015: Mere Anarchy (Bruno Dias)

I didn’t run reviews during Spring Thing because of having my own Back Garden entry. I’ve also changed my review policy for comps: moving away from trying to be thorough (a goal at which I didn’t always succeed anyway), and focusing on covering games about which I have a fair amount to say and/or that I really want to recommend to other players.

For Spring Thing, that starts with Mere Anarchy.

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Mere Anarchy (Bruno Dias) — this is a choice-based game in Undum by the author of ParserComp’s Terminator Chaser. As usual for Undum games, Mere Anarchy looks really good — Undum is still in my view the prettiest-by-default of the available choice systems, and the only real strike against it is that it offers so little by way of authoring tools. I’m impressed that Dias submitted two such complex games in such a short window. And this is a fairly complex piece: I think the state space is smaller than in Squinky’s The Play, but there’s a fair amount going on relative to most Undum games. Many early choices quietly play into the descriptive text later, even if they don’t substantially branch the story.

Mere Anarchy describes itself as “urban fantasy”, which led me (despite the title) to imagine cops-who-are-also-werewolves literature. This is less trope-y and goofy than that, but “urban fantasy” still fits. The protagonist is a magic user in a modern city environment, in which a wealthy cabal controls most of the high magic and which has been having lesser magic-users killed. The story details the preparation and execution of a strike that might be considered a terrorist attack, a coup, or a revolution, depending on your point of view. There’s not much leeway about what you will do or how it will come out, but you can choose details of how the protagonist will act and what their motivations will be. Many of the choices here are about the protagonist’s inner life rather than anything else.

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Writing for Seltani: an Aspel Post-mortem

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Seltani is Andrew Plotkin’s platform for multiplayer choice-based IF. He’s written about it and its world model here, and we had an IF discussion club meet in/about it, from which the transcript is available. I’ve also been kicking around some ideas for multiplayer IF for a while, in one form or another, which I’ve previously written about with respect to Guncho and to Velvet Sundown. Versu also spent some time in multiplayer testing though that feature never reached the production phase.

So I thought I’d see what I could do with Seltani. In my view, the Seltani realms I’d tried so far, though entertaining, were essentially single-player realms where it just happened to be possible to have some collaborators along as buddies; whereas I wanted to do a story where having multiple players was critical to the way the game played and felt. (Edited to add: Barbetween is sort of an exception, but it is asynchronous, so that players never meet one another in the realm.)

Herewith is part 1 of a multi-part post-mortem of Aspel, because it turned out that building and then iterating on this over the course of Spring Thing produced a lot of discoveries. Many thanks to everyone who came along, played, and gave feedback (or just through action showed what was working and what wasn’t): it was a great help.

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